Editor's note:

“In my experience,” writes Brennan Manning, “self-hatred is the dominant malaise crippling Christians and stifling their growth in the Holy Spirit.”

In this excerpt from Celebration of Discipline—if you have the book, the entire chapter on submission is worth a re-read—Richard Foster explains why Jesus’ call to self-denial has nothing to do with self-hate. 

—Renovaré Team

Excerpt from Celebration of Discipline

The touchstone for the biblical understanding of submission is Jesus’ astonishing statement, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8: 34). Almost instinctively we draw back from these words. We are much more comfortable with words like “self-fulfillment” and “self-actualization” than we are with the thought of “self-denial.” (In reality, Jesus’ teaching on self-denial is the only thing that will bring genuine self-fulfillment and self-actualization.) Self-denial conjures up in our minds all sorts of images of groveling and self-hatred. We imagine that it most certainly means the rejection of our individuality and will probably lead to various forms of self-mortification. 

On the contrary, Jesus calls us to self-denial without self-hatred. Self-denial is simply a way of coming to understand that we do not have to have our own way. Our happiness is not dependent upon getting what we want. 

Self-denial does not mean the loss of our identity as some suppose. Without our identity we could not even be subject to each other. Did Jesus lose his identity when he set his face toward Golgotha? Did Peter lose his identity when he responded to Jesus’ cross-bearing command, “Follow me” (John 21: 19)? Did Paul lose his identity when he committed himself to the One who had said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9: 16)? Of course not. We know that the opposite was true. They found their identity in the act of self-denial. 

Self-denial is not the same thing as self-contempt. Self-contempt claims that we have no worth, and even if we do have worth, we should reject it. Self-denial declares that we are of infinite worth and shows us how to realize it. Self-contempt denies the goodness of the creation; self-denial affirms that it is indeed good. Jesus made the ability to love ourselves the prerequisite for our reaching out to others (Matt. 22:39). Self-love and self-denial are not in conflict. More than once Jesus made it quite clear that self-denial is the only sure way to love ourselves. “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39).

Again, we must underscore that self-denial means the freedom to give way to others. It means to hold others’ interests above our interests. In this way self-denial releases us from self-pity. When we live outside of self-denial, we demand that things go our way. When they do not, we revert to self-pity—“ Poor me!” Outwardly we may submit but we do so in a spirit of martyrdom. This spirit of self-pity, of martyrdom, is a sure sign that the Discipline of submission has gone to seed. This is why self-denial is the foundation for submission; it saves us from self-indulgence.

Now Underway: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? First, choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

Learn more >

Excerpt from Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path To Spiritual Growth (pp. 113-114). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.